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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 16-Sep-2003

Edition: Late

Section: Metropolitan


Page: 12

Wordcount: 1363

Spirit of the past sells the future


Elizabeth Farrelly

It was, and is, a tortuous route for some when it comes to the Quarantine Station, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.

Humans, mused Canadian philosopher Mark Kingwell in Sydney recently, “are addicted to taxonomy and line-drawing”. He wasn’t pointing our way, but nowhere is the observation more poignantly apt than at Sydney’s North Head Quarantine Station.

The line, as a device in sand or on paper is an us-and-them thing; less a joiner of two points than a guardian of separateness. The line’s big gig, you might argue, is to facilitate inclusion by establishing exclusion. If they weren’t out, we couldn’t be in: if they weren’t them, we couldn’t be us.

This, of course, is the basis of all clubbery, from nation-state to playground feud. But at North Head the power of the line is especially apparent.

Even now, almost 20 years since the Quarantine Station’s role as line-drawing instrument officially ceased, us-and-themness is everywhere, informing the spirit of the place more certainly than all the seagrass and bandicoots put together.

According to Mawland Hotel Management’s creative director, Simon McArthur, it is this spirit more than the views, the unspoiltness, the gobsmacking location that keeps them in there, determined, even after years of wrangling, to nurse their “cultural tourism” proposal into life.

It’s not what you would call simple. Subject to at least a dozen different a cts including Planning, Heritage, Threatened Species, Rural Fires, Fisheries Management, Maritime Services, National Parks and Wildlife, Rivers and Foreshores, Commercial Vessels and Biodiversity Conservation the proposal enjoys four different consent authorities (Waterways, Heritage Council, the Planning Minister and National Parks also a co-proponent, in a curious sleight-of-policy) and more SEPPs, REPs and LEPs than you can poke a stick at. That’s before you even start on the process or the politics.

The process is bad enough: expressions of interest, agreements to lease, environmental impact statements, conservation management plans, commissions of inquiry; reports and counter-reports, committees and consultations, assessments and audits, hundreds, maybe thousands, of recommendations and conditions. One species not threatened by the process is Planningus consultantii.

The politics are worse. Not only because of the vast proliferation of bureaucracies, interested parties, local loonies and lobbyists, but because with three different heritage types (natural, white-cultural, indigenous) the issues themselves, even un-stirred, are murkier than the harbour bottom on a bad day.

So, why is it worth the fight? It’s that spirit thing. The Quarantine Station started life in 1828, when the good ship Morley arrived with enough whooping cough on board to kill, among others, Governor Darling’s son.

The first accommodation was strictly canvas. But in fits and reactive starts, over the decades, as scares and epidemics came and went, the Quarantine Station came closer and closer to representing our dominant social taxonomies, overt and covert. Embarrassingly close, in fact. Which is why it matters.

By the end of World War I, the patterns were clear. Segregation was the formative principle. A 1919 flow chart shows an iterative sheep-and-goats process; infections from non-infections, immunes from non-immunes, quarantine from observation, convalescence and discharge from death. Not shown, though, are the other layers of segregation, by gender, marital status, class and race.

First- and second-class passengers who were less likely infectees anyway stayed separately, but proximate, with pleasant accommodation, good air and aspect, four-course meals, tennis and croquet lawns, and beach access. There were ladies’ sitting rooms and a splendid veranda-side row of Canary Island palms.

By contrast, third-class passengers and “Asiatics” the vast majority of interns were shunted up back to cramped cemetery-side dorms, with basic rations, self-cooking, and the constant dread of what you might catch from whoever used the air last.

That was the genteel part. The business end of the operation focused on the wharf; a gaggle of mainly brick utility buildings overlooked by the airy, full-veranda timber hospital. Very Florence Nightingale. Until last year’s demolition by fire, this hospital building was (with the death-camp showers) probably the most evocative building on the site.

Below, at the wharf itself, things were pretty diagrammatic. A funicular railway took luggage from brick on-wharf storage sheds into the steam autoclave guaranteed to ruin precious documents like letters and photos and up to the sleeping quarters. Close by too are the tin-lined formalin chamber, where healthy lungs were steeped in this carcinogenic gas as a flu preventative, and said corrugated iron shower-houses, where sophomores were routinely doused in itch-and-burn carbolic.

All this created a palpable misery gradient across the site, emphasised at every turn by fences and regulations; lines and taxonomies, reinforced by the tantalising otherness of the place itself, with full city views, yet fully isolated. Far from seeking to obliterate this excruciated history, the Mawland proposal is designed to enhance and exploit its intrigue value.

This means not only keeping the buildings themselves, un-augmented and largely untouched, but preserving too, the precinctual nature of the site, striving to select new uses as friendly versions of the original.

So, the first and second-class accommodation becomes hotel rooms; some with bathrooms-down-the-hall, to preserve the fabric, some with ensuites, to preserve the market. The third-class and Asiatics precinct will become a cultural studies centre, offering accommodation and teaching rooms. A health spa will occupy the smaller hospital buildings, while the main hospital will be rebuilt as a storytelling venue (offering designer versions of the National Parks ghost tours). The wharf sheds will maintain their first-contact role, only feeding and educating visitors instead of fumigating them.

The general heritage approach, then, under the hand of Paul Davies Architects, is careful without slavishness. From without, the buildings will be unchanged, only kempt. Inside, there is a combination of “sampling” (some rooms kept fully intact) and adaptive re-use (allowing ensuite bathrooms, for instance).

A similar strategy applies to both landscape and natural heritage, with $4 million (of the $15 million total) to be spent on recarving rock inscriptions and other conservation works. Visitor movement will be controlled by suggestion rather than coercion, with “symbolic fencing” steel-mesh and timber evocations of the picket dotting in boundary lines, and low barriers to thank-you-for-not-touching.

The number of visitors is formally limited to 100,000 a year (compared with Port Arthur’s 250,000) and 450 at any one time. Day visitors will have to park at the site entrance, with roughly half the guests expected to arrive instead via specially restored ferry, the Jenner, from Manly’s Oceanworld wharf. Hundreds of approval conditions require ongoing impact mitigation and monitoring of no fewer than 250 separate environmental indicators, including bandicoot mortality, seagrass density and breeding numbers of the little, or fairy, penguin. Find the government department that could sustain that.

So, what’s the problem? Why did the environmental impact and commission of inquiry exercises each receive more than 1000 submissions? It’s part ideological. There is entrenched opposition to private profit-taking on public lands: even with a 21-year lease; even where public access is guaranteed (if limited); even when the public asset is fully maintained.This is understandable. But the Government has spent 20 years trying to make North Head pay its way. Perhaps they could have tried harder. Perhaps the National Parks eco-op could have scraped on through.

But, while governments do some things well, they are not renowned for full-on, creative engagement. And private profit may not prove evil incarnate.

Sure, things could still go wrong. Mawland’s proposal for the site has been approved (pending the final lease agreement), but god inhabits the details. (The “Q-Station” moniker, for example, seems a little coy.)

Equally, though, it may prove just the kind of upbeat and muscular approach to heritage that we antipodes so cringingly lack. Perhaps we should be delighted, not defensive, when a developer proposes to profit from (not despite) history. Perhaps we should draw our taxonomies accordingly. So far, at least, the lines are pointing up.


THREE ILLUS: To be saved .



looking out from the Quarantine Station, above, two of the locals, and an engraving from rocks at the site.

Photos: Rick Stevens, Brendan Esposito


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